A Day in the Life of Southwest’s Largest Cargo Operation

Cargo, Southwest

I don’t talk about cargo much on the blog, but it is most definitely an integral part of the business. Chances are, on every flight you take, there is some kind of cargo in the belly of that airplane. So when Southwest asked if I’d be interested in taking a look at the airline’s largest cargo operation, I thought it would be worthwhile.

Unloading a 737-800

I was surprised to learn that Southwest’s largest cargo station is actually in Los Angeles, even though LAX is only the airline’s tenth largest station in terms of number of departures. In LA, the airline pushes through more than 30 million pounds of cargo every year. That’s over 80,000 pounds a day, about the same weight as one empty 737-700. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not in the grand scheme of things. LAX in total handled more than 3.5 BILLION pounds of cargo in 2013. And if you’re curious what Southwest’s second largest market is… so am I. The airline wouldn’t tell me for some strange reason.

But Southwest does offer cargo service in all of its cities except for a handful of smaller, original AirTran stations (Dayton, Akron/Canton, Flint, Des Moines, Portland, and the international stations) along with Panama City in Florida. Apparently they had it in Panama City but the demand was so low that they pulled it completely. Southwest also offers cargo delivery into Canada and Mexico through interline agreements. That’s pretty unique for an airline that won’t interline its passengers at all.

Southwest Cargo at LAX

My visit began absolutely nowhere near a place you’ve likely been at LAX. Southwest uses a cargo facility on the southwest (snicker) corner of Century and Aviation. It’s at the eastern edge of the airport, near the threshold to the southern runways. If that sounds inconvenient, it is. Southwest’s flights go from Terminal 1, and that’s an incredible 3 mile one way trip from the cargo facility.

The facility is a modest-looking one, and you certainly wouldn’t take notice of it even if you were right next to it. The facility is set up very simply. There are loading docks along the east side to make it easy for trucks to drop off their cargo. During busy times, trucks can wait for a long time before being able to unload, but Southwest has expanded its operation to help alleviate the pain.

LAX Cargo Loading Dock

On the southern side of Southwest’s space, there are 4 intake areas. In the middle, there’s an office that looks like a ticket counter for people to do their business. On the north side, there are again 4 areas but these are meant for people picking up arriving cargo.

LAX Cargo Intake

Apparently about half of Southwest’s cargo business in LA comes from the shipper directly while the other half comes through third-party freight forwarders. Regardless of who sets it up, every shipper must have gone through TSA background checks in order to ship.

When the cargo is pulled off the truck, it goes through one of those four intake gates where paperwork is processed and the boxes are swabbed to check for dangerous substances. (It’s the same thing you get when they swab you or your bags at a TSA checkpoint for passengers.)

Once through, Southwest has to figure out where the put the stuff. It all depends on what’s inside. As you can imagine, Southwest ships all kinds of items. They kept mentioning tropical fish while I was there, and I saw some examples. Apparently there’s a big business shipping live fish around for people who, uh, deal in those things. There’s also seafood, money, and just plain old boring stuff like big boxes of print material.

If the cargo that comes through is perishable and it won’t go out for awhile, then it will end up in a cooler.

Cargo Coolers

I remember seeing the massive cooler rooms when I toured Delta’s facility in Atlanta. This isn’t anything like that scale. If things aren’t perishable they go straight into a cart.

Cargo Carts

If you see a covered cart outside the window of your airplane, that’s a cart full of cargo. The uncovered ones are used for bags. Why? Because cargo can spend a long time sitting in those carts so they need to be protected.

How long? Well it all depends. Southwest has three types of cargo shipments. The most urgent is NFG, or Next Flight Guaranteed. That’s the most expensive and absolutely has to go on the next flight out or it’s free. These are usually very important, something like organs for transplant. But anyone can pay for it if they so choose. Those packages won’t sit in the cart very long since they’ll be on their way quickly.

The next step is RUSH, and that’s guaranteed to get to the destination within 24 hours. The actual flight it goes on isn’t guaranteed, so Southwest can move things around depending upon where it has belly space available. (Cargo will almost never bump checked bags except in an extreme circumstance, so this flexibility helps.) This can sit on a cart for awhile.

The last one is general freight. This stuff is flown entirely on a space available basis. Southwest puts it on a flight that has room, but there are no guarantees on timing. Those things can stay on a cart for a longer time.

I suppose there is a fourth as well. Southwest does transport human remains and they have special covered carts for those as you see below.

Southwest Human Remains

The carts are lined up in rows and sorted by time. You never see multiple flights on a single cart, but they can string several of the carts together and tug them over. Since the terminal is 3 miles away, they want to take as much as they can on each trip.

Seeing all of these expected departure times got me wondering if the airline’s poor operational performance had really hurt the cargo team’s ability to reliably deliver for its customers. The answer was an emphatic “no,” presumably because of the wiggle room in timing for most cargo shipments.

To demonstrate the solid relationship Southwest has with its shippers, I was told about a failed GPS product that the airline offered. This device would show where the cargo was, what the temperature was, and more to give shipper peace of mind. But the shippers felt that Southwest was so reliable in general that nobody wanted to pay extra for that device. It flopped.

Cargo Off the Airplane

When the time comes, the cargo makes a long trek over to the terminal and each cart is dropped off next to its airplane. When an airplane comes in, cargo is unloaded into an empty cart, and then the full carts are unloaded into the airplane. When they’re done with the carts, they drag them up to a single pick up point toward the end of the terminal where a driver will pick them up and take them back to the cargo area.

If it sounds like a lot is going on at the terminal, it is. But there are only two people who work in cargo that are at the terminal itself. The cargo is actually loaded by the rampers, just like the bags are.

Emptying the Bins

If cargo is connecting between flights, Southwest runs it directly between the airplanes instead of sending it to a central connecting point. The only exception is if it’s an overnight connection (which does happen) or if it’s a perishable item on a long layover that needs to be refrigerated.

Cargo that comes into LA will be driven back to the cargo facility where it will be ready for pick up. When the recipient comes to get it, he just has to back up a truck to pick it up.

Southwest’s cargo operation isn’t the largest, nor is it the most technologically-advanced. (I was told that they are building a new cargo booking and tracking system because their current tech is really hindering them. Sounds similar to the passenger side of the airline.) To make up for it, Southwest focuses on making it a real customer service-oriented part of the business with 24/7 phone support and direct access for shippers to people at the airport.

This is not a part of the business that I think about a lot, but it’s sure interesting to get a peek inside every so often.

Thanks to Brad Rush, Cargo Customer Service Manager at LAX along with Amy McKinney, Manager of Cargo & Charters Marketing plus Vina Belardes, Cargo Area Sales Manager and Dan Landson, Senior Specialist in Culture & Communications.

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23 comments on “A Day in the Life of Southwest’s Largest Cargo Operation

  1. Brett,

    Good story, cargo is a very big deal (revenue) in the airline business…

    In my old days working for Continental at the ‘old’ Stapleton airport at Denver,
    lots of cargo/baggage was handled in ‘containers’ on the wide body planes.

    DC-10, L -1011, and DC-8’s… DC-8 is NOT a wide body plane.

    Much easier way to handle cargo, than the poor rampers at Southwest packing
    baggage and cargo in the belly of a 737.

    I remember Ferrari’s being air freighted into Denver, from Italy, for the local
    dealer, on the DC – 10’s. They were just ‘tied’ down’ on a flat pallet.

    Have the airplane manufacturers, or airlines, done any work on a container
    system for narrow body airplanes, that would be practical, and cost effective.?

    Peter Richards
    Boulder, CO.

  2. The A320 series has an option for containers. Some airlines do use it. I think Air Canada uses it on a320/a321 but not a319s. I think some European airlines use it also – BA, AF, LH…

    It is a tradeoff in narrowbodies. Containers reduce the usable volume, have a non-negligible weight (increases fuel burn), and requires special equipment to load/unload. But, they can speed up turnaround time and potentially reduce lost baggage or cargo. It is a different cost/benefit for each airline.

  3. Does Southwest receive any cargo from the port in Long Beach? It’s a quick trip to LAX from the port -traffic not withstanding.

    1. I’ven’t worked for an airline, but I did work for a company that shipped through Long Beach. Short answer: I doubt it.

      Long Answer: Shipping by Sea is slow, but cheap. If someone needed something fast they’d fly it internationally into the country. The other detail is Long Beach is a heavily containerized port. If something were going on an airplane it’d have to be taken to a location and the container unpacked to put it on the plane. So no, it wouldn’t go directly from Long Beach to LAX.

    2. SEAN – I actually asked that question, and it’s as Nick says. Doesn’t sound like they get a ton, and none of it comes directly from the port.

  4. You don’t always think about cargo operations for a passenger airline, but it can be impressive if you look into it.

    I like the green box about to go into the belly, it has a ‘Frozen’ sticker on it. Makes you wonder what’s in it since we think something that is ‘Frozen’ should be transported in a special truck or railroad car and not in a typical passenger airplane belly.

    Does Southwest any any cargo only airplanes?

  5. How accessible is Southwest cargo for small, one-off shipments? I recently had to send some documents to a small town in Alaska, and was disappointed by FedEx: their promised overnight delivery turned out to take nearly 3 days. I later learned that Alaska Airlines has a small package service that’s priced competitively with FedEx and goes on the next flight out; the downside is that you have to drop off and pick up at the airport, but if you need your package fast it makes sense.

    I realize the Alaska market is special because FedEx and UPS offer relatively poor coverage, though Alaska Airlines offers its small package service systemwide (within the U.S., at least). Does Southwest cargo offer a small package service, or is their coverage such that there’s no point in competing with FedEx and UPS?

    1. As far as small, one-off shipments… Packages under 16 oz can be tendered to WN by “the general public”, but of course you would only be able to ship to cities within the WN network. Anything over 16 oz weight can only be tendered by TSA Known Shippers and Indirect Air Carriers.

      1. Wes: I read the entire article and all the comments and I can’t figure out what “WN” means. Enlighten me, please?

        BTW, just to add something to the conversation, I arranged belly cargo shipments directly with PSA airlines in 1985 to ship stocks and bonds between SFO and LAX. Saved our company $150,000/year because they had been sending a person with a briefcase and the cargo shipment was cheaper.

    2. Ron – As Wes says, the days of individuals just shipping things are largely gone thanks to security concerns. You used to be able to go to the airport and drop off packages but you can’t anymore. Now you’d have to go to the cargo facility to do anything.

  6. That is a great picture of a 737 hold. I think I see a ramp worker in the front and one at the top of the loader. The floor is flat stainless to slid stuff on, not rollers. Does anyone have more picture of the life of a ramp worker loading bags in 737’s? I used to work for UPS loading Semi’s and the art of packing spaces is something I really appreiciate. Does the bag/cargo volume always get packed tight from the deepest part of the hold, or is is sometimes put in a think layer all the way across for weight and balance. Rampers, tell your story!

  7. Super-interesting post; it would have been great with just the text, but the pictures made it even better! Thanks, Cranky.

  8. Cargo doesn’t complain about in-flight entertainment, Wi-Fi, outlets, rude flight attendants or bad food.

    1. Cargo also helps balance out winter/summer and day of week seasonality in passenger flows. However cargo generally goes one way, unlike most passengers who eventually come back to their origin. For Southwest it’s probably a small, but still significant addition to the bottom line. However I doubt they support any flight on cargo alone like many international carriers (British Airways and Emirates come to mind)

  9. Right on, for once I have a relevant comment!

    The company I work for has shipped just shy of 400 shipments so far this year on WN (~5000 in our existence). I would estimate *maybe* 2-3 shipments this year would I have any kind of negative feedback on, and even then, it would be pretty minor. Just like the passenger side, WN cargo is awesome. You are dead on about the GPS tracking system having no demand. WN is so good at moving the cargo, the GPS tracking simply wasn’t needed. I was asked about it when it was introduced, as far as “Do we want to look into this?” I said it would be an unneccesary expenditure.

    WN isn’t the cheapest of the US airlines when it comes to cargo. But, if you want something done right, no other airline comes close. WN NFG is on my mind every minute of every day I work.

    Very good post CF. I always wondered if cargo was anything that anyone would find any interest in. You did a great job providing a look into the operations.

    1. One final thought… I have noticed the recovery time in LAX *sometimes* has taken longer than what I am used to. Knowing now that LAX is their largest operation, and seeing the above map, I can absolutely see why. The LAX recovery time is advertised as 60 minutes after arrival, and I have seen it take all of that and maybe even a little more in some instances. But, certainly nothing “excessive”. We certainly do get spoiled by their operation in all cities, heck in SAN I have seen the freight be ready for recovery in 20 minutes after arrival.

  10. Another great example of nice original content that didn’t require you to accept a free trip. :)


  11. A great post. Valuable to note, as the post and many comments do, that odd, narrow-body cargo is a very valuable part of the revenue game. In most cases live pax and their bags are not bumped (by weight) in favor of cargo, but of the shipper pays the highest rates, it CAN happen. Even ‘smaller’ pax oriented airlines carry a lot of belly cargo and most do it very well. Sometimes UPS/FedEx is a better choice, but if the regular volume is there, direct arrangements with an airline (or forwarding agent) can be a good deal. About the only time that the rates become abusive are for Human Remains. UPS Etc. won ‘t do it; there is really no other choice and the airlines know it. “Special Rates” for that category can be truly horrible. My only concern about belly cargo is the few shippers that skirt the safety rules and attempt to ship inappropriate goods. Despite severe penalties and Blacklisting, a few foolish folks continue to try. Shame.

  12. I never realized that cargo played so a large roll in narrow body operations. All very interesting. I was thinking earlier about American Airlines and their switch from 767’s with container use to A321’s on transcon routes. Whenever I flew that route on the 767’s, there was seemingly always lots of cargo being loaded onboard. I know now that narrow bodies can carry cargo as well. But, especially considering how much demand there is for cargo on those routes, I wonder if AA is taking a big hit by switching to the smaller Airbuses.

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